By Yvonne Lim Wilson
May, as Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, is a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. What better way to celebrate than to profile Esther Chung, Community Archivist for the Asian American community at the Austin History Center. Since 2007, Esther has been working to establish a phenomenal archive of oral history recordings, photographs, letters and other documents contributing to our greater understanding of Asian American history. The archives are open to the public, so make a trip to the downtown Austin History Center and see for yourselves our Asian American history!
AA: Did you know what you wanted to do with your life or did it just happen?
EC: When I was much younger, I wanted to become a singer/songwriter but that dream never panned out so I focused on finding a job in which I could help others. I was very lucky to find my current job, all thanks to a fellow grad student who forwarded the job posting to me saying I’d be better suited for it than he was. I’m so grateful to him.
AA: What was your attraction to your vocation? What drew you to do the work you do?
EC: My job is so unique because it allows me to work mostly with the Asian American community. That was the draw for me from the beginning. I have learned so much about our community here in Austin trying to collect as many stories and history as possible. I also love that my job varies from day to day and that I get to interact with lots of different people.
AA: What does the American Dream mean to you?
EC: I love my country but that term ‘American Dream’ has never resonated with me the same way it does with others. I’m more interested in the universal dream through which every single person in the world should be afforded the chance to live a peaceful, fulfilling life wherever they are. My idea of this dream is not grounded in material wealth or lofty achievements but rather of personal satisfaction and pride. Also, many people in America struggle daily to make ends meet and work hard to improve their lives. They shouldn’t feel bad about themselves just because they are not rich or well-known. Our goals in life vary greatly so there shouldn’t be only one ideal dream to which we all aspire.
AA: Is there anything particular about Austin that inspires you?
EC: I am inspired by the people I meet in this city. There is so much hope and creativity in all our communities. I love that there is a lot of curiosity about different cultures and experiences. That is evident in the many different festivals and events held every year. And we, Austinites, are so proud of our city. And rightly so—the beauty of our surroundings also brings out the beauty in all of us.
AA: Are there generational issues, or cultural issues, or both, between young and old Asian American Austinites?
EC: Yes! Even though Asian Americans have been here (technically) since the 1800’s, there are many more recent immigrants and transplants than multi-generational Asian American Austinites. That means the older generation will generally hold onto their values and expectations from their native country. And they often impose them on their children and grandchildren. This is where the clash happens. It affects most Asian American families that I know and lots of stress can come from that kind of home life. Issues surrounding dating, academic performance, social life, vocation, and marriage are the usual culprits for disagreements between kids and their parents. Now there are even differences in views on religion, philanthropy, social justice and politics. That divide is certainly growing.
AA: Asian Americans are becoming a powerful force in Austin economically, culturally, politically and otherwise. How do you see Asian Americans fitting into the larger Austin culture and community?
EC: As our population grows, I believe we need to think inwardly as well as outwardly. Economically, do we support our own local businesses and organizations? Are we contributing time and money to our own ethnic communities as well as the greater Asian American community? If we solidify our internal supports, we will have a stronger voice and impact within the larger Austin community. I believe now is the time to set aside differences and work on finding common ground to achieve our goals while maintain our unique, diverse perspectives. This can be challenging but it is important that others see us working in harmony and coming together. Let’s build on the momentum and get our voices heard!
AA: What do you consider the most important cultural value for you and for those close to you?
EC: For me, it is integrity and transparency. They usually go hand-in-hand. If you are doing the right thing all time, you have nothing to hide. I definitely got this from my cultural upbringing.
AA: What does APIA month mean to you, and how do you think people (Asian and non-Asian) can best participate in this month?
EC: APIA Heritage Month is a chance for us to take a seat at the table and say that we matter. However, I consider every month APIA Heritage Month because I’m talking to people almost every day about the importance of Asian American history! How people can best participate in this month is to look for events and festivals that they can attend and support. Just showing up helps organizers realize these programs matter and that people want to see more.
Esther Chung has been the Community Archivist for the Asian American community at the Austin History Center since 2007. Her work involves collecting and preserving the history of Asian Americans in Austin and Travis County. She has a Masters in Social Work from The University of Texas at Austin and a BA in Sociology from Southern Methodist University. Her areas of expertise include community outreach and program management. Esther has lived in Austin for 15 years.
Originally published April 2013